OUR CRAFT by Karl Iglesias
8 Ways to Hook the Reader
Effective scene transitions add energy and mystery to your script. Here are eight ways to reel in your reader.
Ever seen those swinging rings at the park where a person must swing to get enough momentum to reach the next ring and so on, until they reach the other side? That apparatus is the perfect analogy for the topic at hand: scene transitions, or hooks.
Let's say you just wrote a great scene. The hero has rescued the girl, saved the world from evil, and found the treasure. But now you have to decide how to move to the next scene and keep the reader reading. The key to a great read is not just to hook the reader in one scene, but also to propel him from scene to scene-just like the person on the swinging rings propels himself from ring to ring. Scene hooks create the momentum you need to keep the reader emotionally engaged after your scene ends.
Many writers make the mistake of writing scenes that end relatively well but don't compel the reader to read on. They may be amazing scenes on their own, with a clear beginning, middle, and end, but there's nothing to push the reader into the next scene. The reader is forced to regain the momentum in the next scene, rather than being propelled into the new scene by the previous one.
Always end your scenes at a point where the reader has no choice but to want to continue reading, eager to see what happens next. You simultaneously want to give the sense that the scene has ended but also a sense of anticipation, urging the reader forward.
Let's review some of the most effective hooks, using The Silence of the Lambs (Ted Tally adapting Thomas Harris's novel) as a classic example. Keep in mind that scene hooks are not reserved for thriller or horror scripts. You don't need a cliffhanger at the end of every scene, although it's one of the most common and effective transitions with which to end a scene. Transitions come in an infinite number of varieties, but they all arouse one or more of the main storytelling emotions, such as curiosity, anticipation, tension, or surprise. Here are eight hooks you can use:
1. END WITH A QUESTION
This is a straightforward hook where your last line of dialogue is a question that gets answered in the following scene. In Jack Crawford's (Scott Glenn) first scene with Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), he says of Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins): "Never forget what he is." Clarice's response is "What is that?" The answer to that question comes in the next scene with Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), "He's a monster. A pure psychopath."
2. USE DIALOGUE HOOKS
This technique is similar to a traditional setup-and-payoff hook, except here you use dialogue as the setup, and it doesn't need to be a question like in the example above. One line of dialogue ends the scene, and the payoff to that line, usually an image or an action, begins the next scene. The best example is in Tootsie where Michael's agent says "No one will hire you." Cut to Michael (Dustin Hoffman), disguised as Tootsie, walking in a crowd.
In The Silence of the Lambs, two examples come to mind: the museum scene where Clarice learns the cocoon found in the victim's mouth is the Death's Head moth, ends with the line "Somebody loved him." Cut to Buffalo Bill's lair, with moths flying around, where we see the killer in action. The other example is Clarice's third meeting with Lecter, where she offers him the island deal. That scene ends with the line, "His pathology is a lot more savage than he thinks." This sends us again to Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill's (Ted Levine) basement, where we get a glimpse of his aggressive nature as he orders Catherine (Brooke Smith) with "It rubs the lotion on its skin."
3. GIVE AN ORDER
This is where you end the scene with an order or demand to do something, which arouses anticipation in the reader. The opening scene, where Clarice trains in the woods, ends with her instructor saying, "Crawford wants to see you in his office." Clarice's first meeting with Lecter ends with him ordering her to "Go see Miss Moffett." Later on, a training scene ends with Clarice's instructor ordering her to "pack your boots. You're going to West Virginia. Looks like a Buffalo Bill-type situation."
4. INTRODUCE A NEW REVELATION, TWIST OR CLUE
There's nothing like a good old twist or mysterious clue to arouse curiosity in the reader. Clarice's discovery of the severed head in the jar forces the reader to turn the page to learn the meaning of that shocking image. Discovering the moth cocoon in the victim's mouth in a later scene has the same effect.
5. FORESHADOWING: PROMISES, PLANS, AGREEMENTS, & WARNINGS
Another great hook to end a scene is foreshadowing, making the reader anticipate a future event. This includes making promises, appointments, announcing arrivals, scheduling departures, and issuing ultimatums. Clarice's second meeting with Lecter ends with him telling her, "I'll help you catch him, Clarice. He's probably waiting for that next special lady." There are actually two hooks here: a promise and a dialogue hook, as the next scene introduces us to that next victim, Catherine, for whom Buffalo Bill patiently lies in wait. Another example is the scene where Dr. Chilton tells Lecter he's been scammed, which ends with Lecter saying, "I'll tell the senator in Memphis." This propels us into the next scene with the senator, and sets up Lecter's escape sequence.
6. CREATE A CLIFFHANGER
In media res is Latin for "in the middle of things," which means to end the scene with a cliffhanger. It's also a great way to start a scene. For instance, rather than wasting time establishing location, character, and goal, you start the scene in the middle of the action, which creates curiosity and tension as we wonder what's going on. (The first few seasons of J.J. Abrams's television show Alias was famous for its first scenes starting in the middle of an action scene, a technique he and writers Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci carried over to this summer's Mission: Impossible III.) Cliffhangers are an equally effective way to end a scene, of course. Examples include Buffalo Bill kidnapping Catherine, which ends in the middle of the action when he asks her, "Are you a size 14?" The same hook is used in Lecter's escape sequence, which ends with the ambulance scene where Lecter unmasks himself-and then we cut to Ardelia (Kasi Lemmons) running from the dangling phone to warn Clarice. That ambulance scene cuts in the middle of the gruesome action, keeping us on the edge of our seats, and letting us imagine the fate of the unlucky medical technicians.
7. USE A SHOCK OR SURPRISE
One the most powerful ways to hook the reader into the next scene is with a strong sense of anticipation and tension. Shocks and surprises are all about setting up a particular expectation and then ending the scene by reversing that expectation. Two memorable examples from Silence are the ambulance scene discussed above, and Crawford raiding the wrong house in the cross-cutting climax. In the first, we're led to believe that the body in the ambulance is the injured guard, only to be shocked when it's revealed to be Lecter. And everyone recalls the emotional impact when, after Crawford discovers he's raided the wrong house, Buffalo Bill opens his door to reveal Clarice in another city.
8. ESTABLISH DRAMATIC IRONY
When Clarice enters Jame Gumb's home, we know something she doesn't, that she's found Buffalo Bill. This technique is called dramatic irony, or reader superior position. This is one of the most common ways to engage the reader through tension and anticipation. Who can forget the next-to-Iast scene of the film, where Lecter calls Clarice at her graduation party? That scene ends with the witty line, "I'm having an old friend for dinner," which propels us into the final shots of Lecter following the paranoid but unaware Dr. Chilton. This is a classic example of dramatic irony, and a great hook to send us into that imaginary scene of Lecter avenging Dr. Chilton's petty torments.
Your goal is to always keep the reader emotionally engaged from scene to scene. When you use any of the scene hooks discussed above, you'll arouse several of the key storytelling emotions: anticipation, curiosity, tension, and surprise. Not only will your scenes be stronger, but the overall reading will be smoother and more enjoyable.
KARL IGLESIAS (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a screenwriter and a lecturer at UCLA Extension's Writers Program He is the best-selling author of The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters. His latest book is Writing For Emotional Impact. Find out more at his website, www.karliglesias.com.
Iglesias, Karl. "8 Ways to Hook the Reader." Creative Screenwriting July/August 2008: 48-49.